The council will strongly oppose an attempt by NorthLink to introduce extra daytime sailings between Shetland and Orkney during the summer, as it would have a knock-on effect on services during the winter.
Last month NorthLink chief executive Bill Davidson told the SIC external transport forum that additional daytime crossings to and from Kirkwall could alleviate the problem of cabin restraints in busier periods. But to balance the cost of the extra journeys there would be fewer sailings during the winter.
The idea had apparently been suggested by Shetland coach tour operator Andrew Morrison as a solution to problems he was having securing passenger bookings for his clients.
Tuesday’s meeting of the infrastructure committee poured cold water on the proposal, however.
Shetland West councillor Gary Robinson suggested that NorthLink had misinterpreted Mr Morrison’s suggestion, as he had actually asked for fewer visits to Orkney, not more.
“It was not a key part of the tendering process to go through Orkney,” Mr Robinson said. “It’s not set in stone and not part of the contract.
“I’m seriously concerned about where we’re going with this. We could end up having three days without a ferry in the winter because of bad weather. Who is going to use [the extra Orkney] service? I really don’t see what we have to gain from this. We have a lot more to lose if it goes ahead.”
Lerwick South councillor Cecil Smith said he thought NorthLink was “playing a game here” as the issue was not about cabin capacity.
Shetland Central councillor Betty Fullerton also weighed in against the ferry company. “I read this with dismay,” she said. “We need a daily sailing and we will not be traded off against Orkney. I don’t see this being a lot of use to us. It’s the think end of the wedge and I think we should fight it.”
Convener Sandy Cluness said the overwhelming message coming across was that the Shetland service should stay as it was. He moved the recommendation to that effect and there were no dissenting voices.
Mr Morrison said at the time the idea “… would take some of the pressure off the cabins for the next sailing, and would make more sense for tourist operators”.
ZetTrans network development manager Ken Duerden was initially sceptical, saying that it “would require an adjustment to the operating contract”.
However, after a plan to introduce couchettes as an alternative to cabins failed, the idea is back on the table and an adjustment has been found in the form of cutting back on winter crossings.
The loss of one sailing a week during the winter dry dock period, which currently only has three sailings a week, would save the company substantial money in harbour dues, fuel and running costs, thus enabling them to run the increased daytime sailings.
The idea would also help a problem voiced by councillor Robinson, who said that, while the work done by NorthLink to promote Shetland should be commended, the impact of increased tourism on cabin availability could be a problem for locals also wanting to travel during the summer months.
Mr Robinson said: “I don’t want to see islanders having to sleep on the floor, for example, because of a lack of berths.”
Councillor Iris Hawkins raised concerns at how viable the link was, questioning how many people would be willing to make this trip and how often, and the impact the loss of winter sailings would have on what is a lifeline service for islanders.
Mr Davidson said he thought the route could be an attractive option to wandering tour groups, or those looking to travel on a budget. Any tourists who chose to take this route would inevitably relieve pressure on the amount travelling at night, freeing up cabin space for anyone wishing to travel to Shetland directly.
In relation to those travelling in winter, Mr Davidson said the vast majority were either Shetlanders or those with connections in the isles, who should, providing they know in advance, be able to adjust their travel arrangements to fit in with a new timetable.
Mr Davidson added that he thought that the changes could be put in place as early as 2010.
Councillor Caroline Miller said she thought it was important that the idea be put forward for public consultation. ZetTrans chairman Allan Wishart agreed and said it would be a priority.